Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bridge freezes before road surface usually

Here is another scene. It’s New Year’s Eve day—today in fact. I’d been rushing around for the past week of my ‘vacation’, shopping, spending hours in the basement rearranging junk into more appealing piles of junk, blowing an afternoon cleaning out a bookcase—removing some books to make room for still other books, getting rid of various bits of paper stuck here and there: generally not ‘vacating’ much at all.

Today it must have caught up to me because a couple of hours after Kathy left for work, I fell asleep in my chair for an hour. Then I was still tired so I went up to the nice cozy warm waterbed and slept for another hour. Coming downstairs, I thought it seemed a little chilly, so I checked the thermostat. Set for 66 degrees, the room temperature had dropped to 63. The furnace had quit working.

It was twenty degrees outside with wind blasting the house with forty mile an hour gusts, producing an uncomfortable wind chill, and the house was cooling fast, hitting 58 degrees very quickly.

So I called the people who had installed the furnace, the same people who had serviced it in the fall, and thankfully they were able to get a guy out here in about an hour. It turned out to be the same man who had worked on it in September. He got it working in short order and said I should probably replace the doppelganger doohickey and the frissen mast chunk-a-blunk and I agreed. He went back to his truck, called his boss and explained the situation. The upshot was they did not charge me for the parts, just the labor to install them which was great news given the price of doohickeys these days.

By that time, Kathy was home from work. So what, right? Well, you don’t understand. Kathy hates to be around when someone is working on the house. She really had nowhere else to go, so she had to break one of her rules and stay in the house while the furnace guy worked. It turns out that she was so distracted by a harrowing escape she had had on the highway, that she wouldn’t have cared if John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy were tinkering with the heating system.

We had some snow overnight and the wind kept spreading it around over the roads, such that some stretches were fine, while others were fit for a Red Wings-Rangers game. The past couple of days, I had accompanied Kathy to work so I could run around in the car doing useless errands, but today she ventured out alone. She made it to work driving very slowly along the treacherous mountain passes in the eight miles between our house and her office. (OK, but the road does take a little dip there at that one point.)

She decided to take the “Big Girl” way home on the interstates—something she rarely does. There is a tricky bit where three highways converge and no one ever yields to anyone else lest they appear weak. Some character came whipping past Kathy going about 70 when he hit a hockey rink strategically placed at the merge. He spun violently around, hit the gas and ran up the hillside whereupon clouds of white smoke issued ominously from under his hood. Tree branches festooned the fuselage as he flattened two tires. Undaunted, he slide back down to the highway and tried to continue his mad dash. The car would have none of that, though, and he mercifully gave up and limped to a stop alongside the road.

Her heart in her throat, our terrified heroine wisely eased up on the gas and watched this solo ballet unfold before her, all the time fearing that the crazy driver would carom into her car next. She came home full of her tale of horror on the highways, and regaled our guests with all the details later that evening.

Everyone went home early this year, so it’s a quiet New Year’s. Every year we say why bother to stay up? and every year we’re standing in front of the TV as the ball drops. I wish my readers (all two of you) a year in which you have everything you need, and even a few things you don’t really ‘need’ need; and a year in which you make even more progress in your spiritual journey. And let’s have some fun along the way. See you next year.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Miracle Shmiracle

OK. This was the scene. Kathy and her sister and I went to church for 4pm Mass on Christmas Eve. The decorations were beautiful; the place was packed with people, SRO, in fact. I was chatting with friends before I had to go back to the sacristy to get ready for the procession into church. I was doing the scripture readings, as I have for at least the last ten years, and I felt comfortable with my preparation.

One of the ushers came to get me, saying that there was a woman outside who needed help. He knew I worked in the Social Justice group and that we help parish families with food throughout the year. At Christmas, the people of the parish donate great mountains of presents for the children, and they had come through again for us this year. Everything had been delivered the Sunday before Christmas.

In the vestibule of the church a nervous woman in her thirties told me her name was Jennifer and I asked her what was going on. She explained that her husband, a construction worker, had been laid off three days ago and his last check had not yet arrived. She was worried about her three children and how they would not have a Christmas this year. I dug a scrap of paper out of my suit pocket and wrote down her name, address and phone number and said I would see what I could do. She started to cry and she thanked me and then she left.

She left the building. I thought she was staying for the service, but she just left. Then it dawned on me that she did not belong to our parish. She mentioned that she lived a few blocks away, just off West 54th. I realized after she left that that would put her outside our parish boundaries.

A couple of years ago our group reviewed the list of people we had been helping and saw that many of them no longer lived in our parish, or had never lived in our parish, and certainly did not go to church, any church. We asked each family to register with our parish. Those who did not would be dropped from our list. As a result, we no longer serve about half of those families.

So, this realization kind of cooled my jets. Then I thought about what I could do for her on such short notice and put a little plan together. Then I wondered how I would explain to Kathy that somehow we had to help this family, even as we were hosting fifteen people at our house in a matter of hours. All during Mass I thought about it. I did still have a good time with the scripture readings because they are a couple of my favorites from Isaiah 9 (“For every boot that tramped in battle and every cloak rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for flames. For a child is born to us, a son is given us…”) and the letter to Titus.

Predictably, Kathy blew a gasket when I told her what I had to do. Then she turned to and wrapped some games that I had in storage—thankfully there was one age appropriate toy for each child in Jennifer’s family. These were games I bought last year for Social Justice in case some pledges were not fulfilled. I thought there were some more toys up at church but found that nothing was left after our day of Christmas packing.

We put a twenty in each of four envelopes for each kid and the parents, and my brother in law and I went up to church (again, thankfully I had kept the keys to the food room after the food packing last weekend). We filled a couple of boxes with food staples (cereal, pasta, PB&J, vegetables—that sort of thing, and then set off to find Jennifer’s house.

Turns out she lived a couple miles away, much further than we thought.

My brother in law and I carried the food and presents into the house, and he went back to the car while I talked to Jennifer. She started to cry, and asked me, “How do I keep from feeling guilty about not being able to give Christmas to my kids?” I was caught off guard by this whole scene because I planned to drop off the stuff and zip right out of there, and now it was turning into a counseling session, or was it a teachable moment?

I didn’t have any lesson at the ready, so I just mumbled something about how everyone passes through times like this and then told her to come to church on Christmas. She asked me the Mass schedule and I told her. We hugged and then I escaped.

So. What is the likelihood of her actually turning up at services today? Was I just being played? I called her before we left to go to her house, and she said that while she did not belong to our parish, she wanted to join. She wanted to get the kids involved in church, because she hadn’t done it when they were younger. Privately I thought it was a little late, especially for the twelve year old boy, but I didn’t say anything about that to her. She suggested that I might be able to send her some “literature” about “Sunday School”. That sounded like something you’d say to a telemarketer to get off the phone when you don’t want to say ‘No’ directly, but I wasn’t selling anything.

My feelings are all jumbled up about this. I’m as torn as a manic depressive person cycling through moods like riffling through playing cards. Here is the hand I am holding:

--I ought to feel good about helping someone in the nick of time on Christmas Eve,
--but I have this nagging feeling that I’ve been somehow made a fool of.
--On top of that, I feel bad that I couldn’t do more for Jennifer and her family.
--Layered on that is the fact that she doesn’t belong to our church or any church and seems unlikely to do anything about that.
--And who is she anyway that I should care so much?

Aww-let’s call the whole thing off.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas card list

Not that anyone asked, but I was looking over my Christmas card list the other day, musing about the different people I found there. Here are some of them:

-The friends we’ve made on Caribbean cruises. A couple from Regina in Canada. That pronounication (with a long i) always gave me pause. Couples from British Columbia, Maine, North Carolina and California.

-The guy I went to grad school with back in the 70’s. He was from Philadelphia and we both wound up at the University of Illinois, out in the middle of the cornfields. I wore a Villanova t-shirt to class one day and that got a conversation started. We’ve stayed in touch since then.

- A couple with whom we used to be close. We drifted apart a few years ago. I saw him in the supermarket the other day and I remarked that I had been thinking about him and his wife. “What have you been thinking?” he asked. “Why did we drift apart like that? How come we don’t go to your house for our annual Christmas get together or celebrate family events like we used to? What happened to our friendship?” That’s what I had been thinking, but it’s not what I said to him, standing there by the meat counter in the store.

-Dave-Here’s one for a guy I used to work with. He hired me, a failed Social Studies teacher, back in 1977 for a job he thought I could do. He was my first mentor, but I didn’t know the word at the time. He was rather irreverent, did not suffer fools; it took a good bit to earn his respect. Smiled a lot. His card this year said he was now retired.

-Vince and Jan—He and I were in the YMCA Indian Guides program when our boys were little. I wrote a note in our card bemoaning the fact that they are now called “Adventure Guides”. He wrote back advocating lawyercide. He worked for big city newspapers on the press gangs. Moved to Arizona years ago to “shovel sunshine” as he joked.

-Frances, the widow of a older friend from church. We used to have a men’s Bible study group that occasionally met at their house. I was never sure if she approved of us. He once posed a question to the group: “What is grace?” Well, heck. I can find that out. I pored over my concordance in a scripture research project and later presented my findings to him. I talked about what I had learned about grace from all the reading I had done. He listened politely and when I was done, he—well, he said something like: “What else you got?” something that indicated he wasn’t satisfied with my findings. What a guy he was.

- Here’s the only high school friend I exchange cards with—John. Isn’t that odd? I had come over to the public high school fresh from Catholic elementary school in 1964. Plopping down into ninth grade, in the midst of Protestants and Jews who had been together in public schools for eight years already. At some point we got to be friends and I would go to his house to watch Star Trek and Wild Wild West on TV. He always anguished over his ineptitude with girls. Compared to him I must have been a smooth operator. His wife writes their Christmas missives and we wait each year to see which medical procedure or mishap she will be describing in great gory detail. It hasn’t arrived as of this writing. Sometimes it doesn’t show up until after Christmas.

-Oh here’s a strange one. Maureen. She retired from our office back in the 90’s sometime. She’s a staunch Republican. Used to listen to Rush Limbaugh during her lunch hours, tried to interest me in that activity, but I didn’t go for it. Anyway, one day she said we were going to do some “employer development”, visiting companies to tell them about our services. She picked me up at the leisurely hour of 10am. We did a few visits, then went to lunch. A long lunch. We did a few more after lunch and then knocked off at about 2pm. She was close to retirement—can you tell by her pace?

-Kathy lives down the block. She is a couple years older than me, and already a widow. Her husband John died four years ago after a brief futile struggle with an especially virulent form of Lou Gehrig’s disease. It just swept over him and quickly robbed him of any ability to move and finally to breathe. Some time ago, my Kathy and I started going out to breakfast with her about once a month. She’s doing OK—leaving our parish now to go to the church attended by her children and grandchildren. We still plan on breakfast, though.

- Gene, my eleventh grade English teacher. She was also the advisor for the school newspaper and talked me into writing for it, thus sending me into a life path that I have enjoyed immensely. In each Christmas card she sends me suggestions about what I might want to read. She’s the one who got me into Annie Proulx. Isn’t she wonderful? (Yes—I mean either or both: my teacher and Proulx.)

So who's on your list?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Tree Discussion

Every year at about this time, Kathy and I have the Tree Discussion. If we must have a tree, she wants a small tabletop model, much like her mother used in her later years. For my part, I lobby for a monster that goes to the ceiling. Sometimes we compromise, and I buy a four or five foot tree. One year we were leaving for a cruise right after New Year’s Day, so we bought a too expensive evergreen decoration from LL Bean and plopped in the front window and called it done.

This year, she tried a different tack. Since Stuart Little’s relatives have been showing up in the basement traps lately, she said, “What if a mouse gets into it!?” I thought, oh swell, here we go again. I left the room for a while and came back to get my breakfast out of the microwave (blueberry pancakes I’d made last week, if you must know.)

She said, “Are you upset with me?”, because of course she knows me. Instead of denying it, I said, “I’m hurt and I’m mad about not having a tree” and left it at that for the time being.

I went off the bank, she went off shopping with her sister.

As I drove I tried to figure out why I had reacted that way and why I felt hurt. This comes up every year, after all, so I should have figured it out by now. I usually push down feelings but this time I admitted them—in several senses. I admitted I had them, and admitted them to my consciousness.

This is what I came up with: when I was a kid, we always had a tree that towered over us, smushed against the family room ceiling, decorated with those horrendously inefficient big bulbs. Some had liquid in them that bubbled when they got warm. This is safe? Glass ornaments whose population dwindled each year, due to dropsy; kid-crafted masterpieces and miscellaneous mismatched doo dads dangled from its branches. And tinsel, great gobs of tinsel were strewn over its mass, clumped and dumped until we learned to lay each piece individually to be the ‘icicles’ the box proclaimed they were.

I want a tree like that. Every time.

The darn tree connects me to my youth. Setting up the yuletide shrub is encoded in my DNA. First choose a seven foot cheap old white pine, cut off the bottom three inches to keep the veins open, stick it in the stand and then weave the lights around the branches, then the ornaments then the tinsel then the garland. This sequence is as much a part of my genetic makeup as the markers for blue eyes and distinguished gray hair. Lemmings, salmon, men in my family. Same thing.

Further, it makes me feel young. I’m again a young father doing something for his kids. They aren’t here to see it, so maybe it’s not for them after all. Not putting up a tree is admitting I’m too old to bother. Never! I’ll drag myself to the tree on my last day, stringing the lights just so, to make the tree appear to be lit from within. It’s my light, flickering still, glowing brighter, searing the Christmas night.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Preparing for the worst

Why was this past week so long? It just took forever to get to Friday. It’s not as if we were looking forward to anything in particular, it’s just that each day was about 28 hours long.

I did do a nifty thing at work that I was quite proud of. In thinking about the economy and the lay offs and the poor outlook for new grads, I decided to do a training for the staff on how to help people who can’t find a job, or who have been laid off. We have some new members who have never seen a down market, so I thought they could use some help before the onslaught.

Instead of just lecturing at them I decided to get them involved. I wrote some case studies incorporating pieces of different problems I’d seen before: men, women, different ages, different majors, different stages in life, various degrees of career decidedness. With the staff divided into groups, I had them analyze the cases and report how they would help the individual in each story. It worked pretty well, in fact, in the heat of their discussion, one staff member remarked, “I know this guy!”, and of course they were all composites of people I’ve met over the years. It was then I knew I was on to something.

So, a few people came away inspired to learn more and try some new things. A few of them thanked me—how about that! I finished the session with a short presentation on what I learned from the recruiting trends conference last month. (It’s bad and going to get worse.)

My professional group has a summer conference in August and the program proposals are due soon. I can never think of anything to present, but this time I’m going to put my staff training session in and see if the program committee goes for it. Of course, there is that small matter of a ban on out of state travel at the University.

The Kid was at our house this weekend, just in time for St. Nicholas Day. Nana explained how it worked and The Kid urged his father, “C’mon, Dad, put your shoes out, too!” St. Nick brought him some slippers, some simple toys and five bucks. One of the toys was a very small flower pot with special soil and seeds, so we’re intrigued about how they will turn out. On Saturday, I suggested that he might want to put out Christmas decorations in our house. He was up for that, so I said we had to dust first. He happily proclaimed that “Dusting is my game!” and so dad supervised his cleaning. They did a nice job and then set out the house Christmas bric a brac. Later they headed down to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where kids get in free. He was drawn to the Johnny Cash exhibit, since his mother likes him.

Big changes at church for 2009. As you know, our pastor died a month ago, and we only have one priest now. We are not sure if we will get another one any time soon, so our priest, who is called a parish administrator—not quite a pastor—is cutting the number of Masses in the parish from five to three. We will now have 4:30pm on Saturday, and only an 8:30am and 11:00am on Sunday.

It was apparent that something had to be done after an attendance survey showed that an average of 925 people came to Mass each weekend. The capacity of the church is 910, so it took five Masses to fill the church one time. Now I wonder if people will drift to other churches who have earlier or later Masses than we do. We’ll see what happens over the next few months.